$300 billion. That is the cost to American employers for employee healthcare and employee absence related to workplace stress.
It’s a big number. It also gives a dismaying sense of the physical, psychological and emotional trauma being experienced by millions of individual employees to give rise to costs of that magnitude.
Wellness programs are tackling the causes and consequences of stress in a variety of ways, such as physical exercise, diet, meditation and positive thinking. One approach, though, is receiving less attention: Conversation.
By conversation, I don’t mean the simplicity of water cooler chit chat or the intervention of therapy. Instead I am referencing the type of deeper conversational engagement referenced in this 2010 study, which found that, “well-being is related to having less small talk and more substantive conversations.” We are social creatures. Connecting with others and building relationships are essential for our well-being as humans. Conversation is a mutual method for personal growth. Conversation might be described as an active, participatory form of mindfulness.
Perversely, there remains a fear in some businesses that relationships should not be a focus in the workplace. In some of its surveys regarding engagement and management effectiveness, Gallup asks if the respondent has a best friend at work. Despite Gallup’s credibility and voluminous research, it describes the skepticism and derision leveled at that question by some executives and business disciplines. “Executives who think friendships are none of their business don’t understand human nature,” Gallup observes.
Wellness is not just coping but flourishing and, as humans, we flourish when we feel a sense of connection and belonging. To enable that, we must act proactively. “If you wait until you’re feeling stressed before you employ some technique for managing stress, it’s already too late,” says psychologist Robert Epstein of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies. Corporate leaders must be intentional about adopting approaches that nurtures relationships, values and a meaningful purpose in their work life. To diminish stress and its huge costs to the business and people, executives urgently need to evolve cultures of authentic conversation.